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'Waltz With Bashir' examines dark Israeli past

Johnny Rotten of PIL's snearing "This is Not a Love Song" is an apt soundtrack for the Oscar-nominated "Waltz with Bashir."

From the animated documentary's riveting opening scene, featuring a pack of menacing dogs, to its mirror-shattering conclusion, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman presents a powerful exploration into a former soldier's suppressed memory of war. But rather than stop there, Folman weaves the individual's search for answers with what he sees as Israel's collective disassociation from its role as hated occupier.

The film revolves around one of Israel's darkest hours. The Israeli Defense Forces in control of Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 stood by as their ally, the Christian Phalangist forces, brutally massacred hundreds and possibly thousands of Palestinian men, women and children over three days.

The slaughter avenged the murder two days earlier of Lebanon's charismatic president-elect Bashir Gemayel, who it later turned out was murdered by a Syrian agent and not Palestinians. Ariel Sharon, then Isreal's defense minister, was forced to resign after a government investigation found he did nothing to stop the atrocity.

The film, bolstered by Max Richter's foreboding score, opens to a techno beat as Boaz, a friend of the animated Folman, recounts a dream of drooling, wild dogs that haunts him nightly. Boaz explains it had been his job to shoot dogs so they wouldn't bark and give away soldiers' positions. Now, they want their pound of flesh.

That gets Folman wondering why he remembers nothing of his military service, which began nearly a quarter century earlier. It leads to a recurring dream, set in a yellowish hue, of himself and other soldiers naked except for their dog tags and Uzis, walking trance-like out of the ocean toward Beirut's coastline. Added later are the faces of anguished women, dressed in black, filing past him.

Folman first seeks the help of a therapist friend and then service buddies in an attempt to recapture his wartime memories. All are in some way scarred by their experience, even as their introspection belies a certain ambivalence.

One ex-soldier, describing his fear of going to war, recalls his vision of a giant woman, naked and beautiful, who lets him float away on top of her as his ship explodes in the distance. Another recounts his guilt-ridden escape to safety as fellow platoon members are picked off by Palestinian bullets.

Folman begins to reconstruct his wartime experience, but struggles to recall what happened in the refugee camps, where he was stationed nearby when the killings began. Did Folman fire flares that illuminated the sky and contribute to the killing?

As others explain what happened, the screen shows images of mass killings and broken survivors that could have occurred in Auschwitz, where Folman's parents were sent.

"The massacre's been with you since you were, I don't know, 6 years old . . . Against your will, you were cast in the role of Nazi," says Ori, Folman's therapist friend, explaining his blocked memories.

As Folman recalls more and understands his dream, the revelation hits like a bomb.

The film disturbingly captures the horror as well as the futility of war, with Folman's implicit point: Jews -- victims of the worst kind of oppression humanity has ever known -- and by extension, Israel, must not become the oppressor.

The animation that pushes the story line has the look of the gritty graphic novel Forman co-authored. It was done by a team of artists led by chief illustrator David Polonsky using staged, videotaped interviews.

The film is the latest in a small but growing number using animation to present social realism, most notably 2007's terrific history lesson "Persepolis." The story of an Iranian girl's rebellion against government repression and sexism was also based on a graphic novel, by Marjane Satrapi.

Books, notably Art Spiegelman's landmark "Maus," and comic books, including Harvey Pekar's American Splendor series, have also done so with great effect, and for a longer period.

"Waltz with Bashir" is sure to take its place alongside them. On Sunday, at the Academy Awards, we'll find out if it's with the golden statuette handed out for Best Foreign Language Film.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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>Movie Review

"Waltz With Bashir"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Animated documentary about a former Israeli soldier's struggle to recall his military experience, including at the site of the 1982 atrocities of Palestinians at two Lebanese refugee camps. Directed by Ari Folman. 90 minutes. Rated R for disturbing images of wartime atrocities, nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content. Opens Friday in the Dipson Amherst.

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